According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness [NAMI], 20 percent of youth ages 13-18 live with a serious mental condition; eleven percent of youth have a mood disorder; ten percent have a behavior or conduct disorder and eight percent have an anxiety disorder. Though all are treatable, without treatment, these conditions can manifest in profoundly negative ways and with potentially devastating consequences. Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental illness can often prevent people from seeking the help they need.
“From school violence to suicides and substance abuse, there is ample evidence of the danger posed to young people by ignoring and/or minimizing mental health issues,” said Superintendent Vincent S. Smith. “Though the Point Pleasant School District has historically taken a proactive approach to the interdisciplinary integration of mental health education in district schools, recent years have seen increased efforts – especially at the high school level - aimed at destigmatizing mental illness while also promoting health and wellness and educating students, their parents and the community about the resources that are available to them to ensure that no one needlessly suffers.”
These efforts, according to the superintendent, can largely be attributed to Point Pleasant Borough High School’s Youth Wellness Council and their advisors, district Social Worker for Grades 6 through 12, Marcie Bradley and Point Pleasant Borough High School Guidance Counselor Kathy Molyneaux, who established the Council in 2015 with the goal of raising mental health awareness and promoting health and wellness among Point Pleasant Borough High School’s students.
“The concept for the Youth Wellness Council came about in April 2015 after I, along with five of our then freshman and sophomores attended the first ever Be Well Youth Wellness Summit,” said Mrs. Bradley. “The Summit, which was coordinated by the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, was designed to provide students, school administrators and school personnel with current and accurate information about suicide and other mental health issues affecting teens as well as to provide resources and guidance to support overall wellness. The event instilled methods and practices to promote wellness and positive mental health among students, to help them learn effective problem solving strategies and coping skills with the overarching goal of enhancing their leadership skills.
“The expectation was that the students that attended the Summit would later turnkey what they learned and share it with their peers through positive messaging communicated during Mental Health Awareness Month in May 2015,” she said. “What actually happened, though, exceeded my every expectation.”
According to Mrs. Bradley, after returning from the Summit, the students immediately began brainstorming activities and events not only for Mental Health Awareness Month but also for Suicide Awareness Month the following September and beyond.
“The students really demonstrated a profound commitment to this cause, effectively communicating the necessity of this organization,” she said. “And with that, the Youth Wellness Council was born.”
Mrs. Bradley said since its inception, the Council, has planned and executed numerous activities and events.
“For the past three years – in May and again in September – the Council has helped raise awareness about mental health by featuring mental health facts on the daily announcements, by hanging mental health themed posters throughout the school, and by filming video public service announcements, which are broadcast on the school’s morning video announcements,” she said.
Activities aren’t limited to just May and September however, throughout the year, the Council also broadcasts the Wednesday Wellness Tip each week, during Wednesday’s morning announcements. The Council also maintains a bulletin board to de-stigmatize mental health issues and also to provide the contact numbers for organizations that provide help and assistance.
“The Youth Wellness Council is constantly looking for innovative and effective ways to spread their message, raise awareness and support their peers,” said Mrs. Bradley.
She said the Council is currently working with high school Software Engineering teacher Nick Gattuso and his students with the goal of developing an app that will connect students with resources during times of crisis.
“The Council coordinates frequent awareness-building events and activities throughout the year, however, the big event remains the Wellness Summit,” she said. “Following the success of and our students’ positive response to the Be Well Youth Summit, in 2015 we sought to duplicate the event in the district. Our inaugural mini-summit was held that same year to excellent results and it has only grown since, becoming an annual event.”
On Nov. 16, Point Pleasant Borough High School held the Fourth Annual Wellness Summit. The Summit featured a number of returning organizations along some new ones, including 2nd Floor, New Jersey’s youth helpline, GLSEN, Prevention First, Harbor House, Ocean Academy/Ocean Mental Health, Ocean Partnership for Children, Common Ground Grief Center, St. Francis Counseling, and the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide as well as Lotus Lounge Yoga. The members of the Youth Wellness Council were also on hand to help facilitate the event and to promote the council among their peers.
Students attended the summit during their gym or health periods, where they learned about the resources available to them during times of crisis and some positive coping strategies.
“The students came to the Summit prepared with a sheet of prompt questions that they could pose to the vendors,” Mrs. Bradley said. “This helped facilitate a dialogue among our students and the representatives from each organization.”
Students could opt to stick to the provided prompts, questioning the organizations about their goals, location, hours and other details or they could opt for a more organic discussion, or even take part in interactive elements prepared by the exhibitors. Prevention First, a non-profit organization focused on the prevention of alcohol and drug abuse, helped students differentiate between images of candy juxtaposed with those of drugs. The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide educated students about the importance of designating a trusted adult, even distributing cards on which students could write their trusted adult’s name and contact information. And throughout the Summit, instructors from Lotus Lounge Yoga taught yoga to small groups of students.
“The purpose of the Summit is to help raise awareness about mental illness and also to promote positive mental health strategies,” said Mrs. Bradley. “We want students to know, the importance of seeking help when it’s needed, that it’s ok to not be ok, and above all, that they are never alone.”
Mrs. Bradley said she’s hopeful that after attending the mini-summit, students will be able to more comfortably speak about the sensitive topic of mental health.
The Summit coincided with the introduction of a new curriculum called Lifelines to the high school’s seniors.
Developed by the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, Lifelines® is a comprehensive suicide prevention curriculum that provides suicide awareness resources for the entire school community.
“According to the most recent CDC statistics, an average of 5,400 young people in grades 7-12 attempt suicide every day in the United States,” said Mrs. Bradley. “Further studies indicate that most parents and peers don’t know how to identify the warning signs that someone is contemplating suicide.
“With the Lifelines curriculum, students participate in role-playing exercises that ultimately teach them what to do when faced with a suicidal peer,” she said. “The exercises emphasize seeking adult help while also helping to teach students that they too have a role in suicide prevention.
“Suicide is preventable but only through informed intervention. Our school community needs to be working collaboratively, openly and consistently communicating to our children that suicide must never be considered a valid option.”
The Lifelines lessons ran for five consecutive Mondays beginning Nov. 12.
“To learn effectively, students must be at their best both physically and mentally,” said Superintendent Smith. “When a deficit occurs in either area, a student cannot achieve his or her potential. Mental illness can be a difficult topic to broach because of the heavy stigma surrounding it, but that stigma is dangerous and can even be deadly because it is often what prevents people from seeking the help they need.
“It’s for this reason that early, consistent and meaningful mental health education is critical,” he said. “The new Lifelines curriculum, the efforts of the Wellness Council, and our schools’ character education programs coupled with targeted professional development for all staff members helps create a system of support for our students. By helping to promote the development of effective coping skills in the face of adolescent challenges, we can interrupt the adoption of maladaptive coping mechanisms, while educating our students about mental health and wellness, we can end the stigma that surrounds mental illness.”